out to save the world?

outtosaveworldA new book has just been published: Spiritual and Visionary Communities: Out to Save the World. Having purchased it myself and read chunks of it, I can safely say that it is a throroughly readable and utterly compelling study of some of the many intentional communities around the world, a study that is nevertheless academically rigorous and backed by copious and meticulously detailed footnotes and references. Readers of this blog would be fascinated by this book as it contains a chapter about someone’s experience within the NKT. Yes, folks, you read that right: there is a book out there now that contains an account of life within the NKT, “warts ‘n all”! That alone makes this book ground-breaking and worth reading just for that.

I wrote a review for the book, which is now on the amazon.co.uk website:

I must admit to being biased about this book: I have personal experience of INFORM, the independent charity that collects and disseminates accurate, balanced and up-to-date information about minority religious and spiritual movements, and which has organised the bringing together of the collection of essays that constitutes this book. I have had reason to be very grateful for the balanced, sensitive help and advice INFORM gave me when I experienced the trauma of becoming involved in a bitter dispute within the New Kadampa Tradition, one of the movements written about in this book. The subtitle of this book – Out to Save the World – indicates what is common to all the intentional communities that feature in this book, these communities being just a small sample of the many thousands of such communities around the world. These communities originally start off with the best of intentions, in this case the intention to help save the world in some way. But so often these communities, because they involve some radical experimentation or innovation in communal living, or represent a radical break with a spiritual tradition, or cultural norm, have crises and disputes to deal with which threaten their very existence. How these communities deal with these crises determines, amongst other things, whether the original intention of these communities survives or changes significantly, sometimes so much so that it becomes unrecognisable to the community’s original founders or members. These communities, when they function harmoniously, often help their members to experience the height of spiritual inspiration, even ecstasy, in ways not available in the ‘normal’ world, sometimes creating the feeling of having been ‘saved’ and thereby empowered to help save others. But when they go wrong, the fall-out can be toxic to all involved, especially given the deep emotional, financial and social investment members of these communities often have to make in order to gain entry to them, or at least feel like they belong within them. Exit from these communities, voluntary or enforced, is often deeply traumatic and destabilising for both the people leaving and for some of those left behind.

I will only mention one essay in this book, the chapter written by Carol McQuire about her time as a Buddhist nun within the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), which is deeply controversial within the world of Buddhism generally. I, like Carol, was once a devout member of the NKT and I was deeply moved by Carol’s searing honesty about her experiences, and about her complex and evolving feelings towards the teachers, teachings and organisational practices of the NKT both during her time as a nun and after her traumatic exit from the NKT. I could relate to many of her experiences and feelings and recognised how difficult it is to retain one’s idealism and devotion in the midst of turbulent, confusing and often disturbing change within an organisation like the NKT, which tries so hard to preserve what it perceives to be a ‘pure’ Buddhism whilst at the same time trying to put clear blue water between itself and the rest of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that it originally evolved from and which often itself criticises the NKT as being less than a ‘pure’ Buddhist sangha. Carol’s essay was somewhat cathartic for me and helped me with my present journey towards understanding and integrating my past within the NKT. I suspect many of the other essays in the book will serve a similar function for others who have had contact with either the NKT or the other intentional communities explored in this book.

All the essays in this book are meticulously backed up with copious footnotes and references to academic research and documentary material, and the introductory overview by Timothy Miller of the broad history of intentional communities is extremely useful in putting the essays that follow into context. The stories in this book are about powerful, often bizarre, always deeply felt experiences by real life people within the intentional communities they belonged to, and show a side of spiritual life that very rarely makes the headlines, especially as many communities have fraught relationships with the media and society in general, sometimes preferring not to engage openly with them at all, in order to maintain their ‘purity’ or so as to maintain their freedom to operate in the way they wish to, or simply because they despair of ever getting the wider world to understand or accept them. This book is an invaluable contribution to the study of intentional communities and their often fraught histories, complex social relationships and organisational psychologies. It is also very readable and compelling into the bargain. Truth is often stranger than fiction and this book certainly illustrates that.

Putting the NKT into perspective

If you wish to study the evolution of the New Kadampa Tradition in the wider context of Tibetan Buddhism in general and within the cultural context of Buddhist adaptation generally within the modern West, you may find the academically rigorous analysis by Dr. David Kay in his “Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain – Transplantation, development and adaptation”  to be essential reading. This is exactly the sort of wider context that makes so much of what the NKT does more understandable. It is the sort of context that would probably never be supplied from within the NKT itself but which needs to be supplied from outside the NKT if any kind of balanced perspective upon the activities of the NKT is to be even possible. I’m not going to quote from the essay, because it is such a long one and I really think it needs careful reading all the way through to get a real understanding of the full historical background to the NKT. In the process, I think one gets a much better understanding of Tibetan Buddhism in general and of the ongoing challenges Buddhism faces in its transmission to the West. It also gives one some insight into how much the NKT itself has changed already and is likely to change even more as it tries to deal with its own turbulent past and the fast-changing dynamics of its present situation. Without reading this essay, one would probably never know – unless one has been a long-time ‘insider’ – just how much, and why, the NKT has changed, as the NKT is very good at rewriting its own history in order to promote the impression of it having an untroubled, stable and secure identity that has endured over time, free from challenge by internal conflicts or external disputes. I heartily recommend that Kay’s work be studied, especially as he bends over backward to be as fair and objective as he can. Happy reading!

A virtual Nalanda for our times?

One of the things which has impressed me in recent years is how some Buddhist traditions have successfully engaged with the age of the internet to such a degree that many excellent opportunities for studying Buddhist view and practice online has become available. This obviously makes Buddhism so much more available for serious, systematic study than it used to be, but interestingly it also makes it easier for people to be much better prepared and informed about Buddhism before they commit themselves to any particular method of practice or to any particular lineage of transmission. Also, it can ensure that  people are able to learn enough to be confident  in studying and practising entirely by themselves if they wish, although I suspect the need to engage with sangha face-to-face from time to time will, for most people, always be necessary to some extent. Below, I offer just a small sample of those online opportunities that I have so far discovered, or that I have some small knowledge of.

The Buddhanet website has been going a long time, is very well managed, and has a vast range of materials on it. It has a range of online study materials, all free. See: http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/guide.htm

Rangjung Yeshe Institute, an international centre for Buddhist Studies, offers courses in Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan, Sanskrit and Nepali languages. The courses combine traditional Tibetan Buddhist teachings with a modern Buddhist Studies perspective. All classes are held in the unique setting of a Tibetan monastery in Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Nepal. Students can earn BA and MA degrees in Buddhist Studies and Himalayan Languages or study for shorter, intensive periods. For visiting students, study-abroad programs in Buddhist philosophy and language as well as a range of intensive summer programs in Buddhist philosophy and related languages are offered.  It has an online learning programme, but there are fees for this. See: http://www.shedra.org/

The Triratna Community, formerly known as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, has a fantastic site full of excellent study materials, which are free and don’t require a prior commitment to the Triratna community, but which is a great preliminary for eventually making that commitment if one wanted to. Much of the material will be familiar to those who have studied already within the Tibetan tradition, but much will also be unfamiliar, as the study approach is very broad and encompasses materials from other Buddhist traditions. See: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/study/

The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition now has a very well organised set of online study programmes which appear to be excellent for those who are particularly keen to study and practice Buddhism within the Tibetan tradition descended from Je Tsongkhapa. Some of the study content is free but much of it is only accessible after choosing a level of membership of Friends of the FPMT where a financial contribution is expected, but the rates appear very reasonable for the amount and quality of study materials that become accessible. See: http://onlinelearning.fpmt.org/

For those who want to go the whole hog and do an in-depth academic study of Buddhism, the University of Wales, Newport, does a distance e-learning course that leads to an MA/PG Diploma/PG Certificate in Buddhist Studies. I have myself successfully completed tow years of this course when exactly the same course was offered previously at the University of Sunderland, and as a result I achieved the PG Diploma. I can certainly vouch for the excellent quality of the course, which certainly gives one a thorough overview of the whole of Buddhism as it is practised in various ways throughout the world, and it hives one a very solid grounding in basic Buddhist philosophy. The course is not free. It costs £1,200 the first year, £2,400 for two years, or if you did the whole 3 years would cost £3,200 for 3 years. This is incredibly reasonable for a proper university course! See: http://www.newport.ac.uk/study/postgraduate/courses/Pages/BuddhistStudies.aspx


Just do a Google search for online Buddhist study courses. You’ll be amazed at what you find! I’ve learnt enough now to realise that no one single Buddhist tradition or lineage can justifiably claim to contain within it all the richness and potential of what the Buddha taught. An openess to, and willingness to engage with, many Buddhist traditions appears to me to be so much more creative and rewarding than confining oneself to just studying within one tradition only. I would claim that knowing more about traditions other than one’s own practice tradition makes one, at the very least, more aware of the nature and context of one’s own tradition and more appreciative of what unique gifts different traditions bring to the Buddhist table. Indeed, the internet age may be instrumental in creating a golden age of Buddhist study and practice, in which a virtual Nalanda and Vikramashila arises as the Buddhist university of our time.